Tribal politics has given rise to corruption and marginalisation of communities

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 June 2017

Tribal politics in Africa is one of the reasons most communities across the continent are suffering massive under-development, social injustice, marginalisation, and at worse – violent conflict and loss of life.

Even a small country like Sierra Leone where the majority of citizens live in almost perfect harmony with each other, politicians cannot help using tribal differences to wield power and exert influence in key political decision-making, with catastrophic consequences.

Since the gaining of independence in 1961, Sierra Leone has witnessed a grotesque erosion and dumbing down of public service management standards and ethics, as qualified and highly experienced public officials are replaced by those less capable – on grounds of tribal preference and victimisation – putting political squared pegs in round holes. (Photo: President Siaka Probyn Stevens – the architect and builder of tribal politics in Sierra Leone).

Tribal politics in Sierra Leone has resulted in massive economic and social cost, which is manifested in rampant corruption, growing poverty, breakdown in law and order, a rise in impunity, poor governance, and the erosion of public confidence in politics, democracy and politicians.

And in Kenya, tribal politics has given rise to corruption, marginalisation, disenfranchisement of communities and full-blown violence. Says a report published in

A stock take of the present ethnic reality in Kenya shows that tribalism is more entrenched than ever, says Daisy Maritim-Maina, as she makes a case for the politics of ideology ahead of the country’s general election, in an article titled ‘How Kenya could move away from the politics of ethnicity’. This is her story:

In 1992 Kenya held its first multi-party election in 26 years. Since this re-introduction of multipartism, the “politics of tribe” has been blamed for the country’s political tribulations.

This has led to a system under which leaders channel government resources to their ethnic supporters to ensure their political survival. In turn, their supporters begin to feel entitled to government resources.

The politics of ethnicity therefore becomes an inter-community competition, not merely for representation in governance, but for resources. This isn’t a problem exclusive to Kenya. Studies show that many African countries are finding it difficult to manage diversity, and particularly ethnicity.

In other parts of the world such as Yugoslavia, Burma, and Sri Lanka, ethnicity has been politicised and has consequently played a major role in triggering violence. In Kenya, tribal politics has given rise to rampant corruption, marginalisation, disenfranchisement of entire communities, and full-blown violence.

As the country goes into another general election this August, two questions are frequently being asked. Has anything changed since 2007 when violence broke out after a disputed election? And are there any real ideological differences between Kenya’s two main coalitions?

A stock take of the present ethnic reality shows that tribalism is more entrenched than ever. The two coalitions are a cluster of parties that represent regional ethnic blocs.  In fact they have split the country down the middle along a clear tribal fault line, with the populous Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes on one side and the Luo, Luhya and Kamba on the other.

The history of ethnic loyalties

But why are there such bitter contests every election cycle? It has everything to do with the possibility of attaining control of state resources and being in charge of their allocation. Kenya has been governed by four presidents from two ethnic communities since independence: the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. The 40 other communities now believe that it’s their turn to hold the presidency.

Kenya is home to 42 ethnic groups. The major ones are the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, and Kamba. Combined, they form 66% of the country’s population. The behaviour of Kenyan voters has remained largely consistent over the past five multi-party elections. Regardless of where they reside, ethnic allegiance has been the most influential motivator at the ballot.

This pattern of political allegiance based on ethnicity has a long history dating back to Kenya’s colonial past. In Kenya’s first independent general election in May 1963, the two largest indigenous parties KANU, formed in May 1960, and KADU, formed a month later, both assumed an ethnic DNA.

KANU represented the populous Kikuyu and Luo tribes and KADU represented the smaller Masai, Kalenjin, Luhya and Mijikenda communities. This was partly because colonial policy barred the formation of nationwide political movements. It only allowed the formation of district political associations.

The effect was to encourage ethnically homogeneous political associations to emerge across the country. As a result, parties have drawn their political legitimacy and capital from their respective ethnic bases since independence.

At Lancaster House – where Kenyan delegates held a series of meetings to negotiate Kenya’s independence constitution – KANU and KADU leaders wore their ethnic hats. And in 1966 when Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga left KANU he retreated to his ethnic backyard and formed the Kenya People’s Union.

So historically speaking, political parties have never really been divorced from tribal affiliations. But the problem runs much deeper than tribal politics. In Kenya an ethnically diverse society is responding to an imposed political configuration which, thanks to its colonial heritage, is a democratic competition for resources.

Fixing the problem

If we regard democracy as elastic rather than rigid, it allows us to recognise that it can be forced – or negotiated. Negotiated democracy can lead to stability, whereas forced democracy can lead to instability and violence.  A case in point is Zimbabwe where a power-sharing deal was reached between Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change in 2008.

At the time, the deal brought the country’s political and economic crisis to an end. Other African examples of negotiated democracies include South Africa and Rwanda.

In Kenya, negotiated democracy can be reached by creating more executive positions beyond the president and deputy president to accommodate feuding tribes: mainly the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Luhya.

Kenya has tried this model before, and it worked. The power sharing model put in place after the 2007 election quelled the post-election violence. The new structure, guided by the peace accord, created three new executive positions – a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers. This created a more ethnically inclusive leadership.

Constitutionally, a power-sharing agreement may not be as simple to effect as the 2008 National Accord and Reconciliation Act.

In that case, a simple Act of Parliament was passed to create the positions of a prime minister and his two deputies.

Today the government would need to call a referendum to create substantive positions. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent. Changes like this could lead to a realignment of political parties.

If representatives of a majority of Kenya’s ethnic groups were guaranteed senior positions in government, politicians would gradually move away from ethnicity as a tool for political mobilisation, and towards ideological campaigns that prioritise socio-economic development.

About the author

Daisy Maritim-Maina is a PhD Candidate in Political Economy at the SMC University



  1. The biggest shock I had was when the pope who is a spiritual leader appointed a southerner as head of the Catholic Church in the north and was immediately rejected by the northerners.

    I believe when it comes to religion, it should transcend tribes, nationality or race. But the people of Makeni prefers a foreigner (white). Based on unconfirmed reports the pope had no choice but to transfer the southerner (Bishop Aruna) to The Gambia where he was well received.

    But the blessing about the two major tribes ( Mende and Temne ) is they have different personalities. People perceived the Mende as law abiding people ( den lek case) and the temne as the opposite ( den lek Gbos Gbos or fet fet ). So it will eventually work out, because it always takes two to start a fight.

  2. My major concern in this country is the role of the media when it comes to dealing with crucial issues that greatly affect the larger population.

    Most of our Journalists in Sierra Leone have become Joinalists supporting the party in power using their propaganda machinery, disregarding issues that are affecting the entire populace.

    What I really expect non-partisan and non-corrupt journalists to do is to reveal how tribalism and regionalism is practiced by any government that comes to power. I am interested in seeing publication of statistics of the following by region and tribe:
    1. No. of ministers appointed their tribe and region
    2. No. of Directors appointed their tribe and region
    3. No. of Heads of institutions their tribe and region
    4. No. of Directors sacked their tribe and region
    5. No. of heads of institutions sacked their tribe and region
    6 No. of Ambassadors their tribe and region
    7. No. of principals of institutions their tribe and region
    8. No. of teachers approved this year their tribe and region
    9. No. of schools approved this year their tribe and region
    10.No. of streets tared in each district
    11. No. of projects approved in each district
    12. No. of NGOs operating in each districts
    13. No. of funds allocated to each council
    14. No. of people undergoing police and military trainings by
    tribe and region for recruitment this year into the police
    and the military
    15. No. of Government scholarships issued to students by tribe
    and region
    16. No. of students sent for overseas studies by tribe and region
    17. No. of micro-credit loans given by government to people by
    tribe and district.

  3. To Sierra Leoneans like me who will never graduate from studying the history of Sierra Leone, ethnicity in the political theatre started raising its ugly head during the brief leadership of Sir Albert Margai – a disposition which was to cost him hugely in the 1967 general elections which Siaka Stevens eventually won.

    Sir Albert strayed from the well trodden track which the man he succeeded – his older brother Sir Milton, had laid on the premise that the country was/is made up of many ethnic groups and that none of them should be allowed to develop any perception of being marginalised.

    Sir Milton, in his death bed wanted a northerner – John Karefa-smart to formally succeed him, should his absence from office become permanent.

    Sir Albert had other ideas and it precipitated the fragmentation of S.L.P.P. which had been so encompassing and embracing that it was dubbed “country man party”. S.L.P.P have not regained their balance ever since. Their rigidity does not help either. See, they see not, listen they listen not. Their political brain is significantly devoid of blood and oxygen.

    Siaka Stevens came along and pushed ethnicity through the stratosphere; it was a way of securing his hold on power – never mind the dangerous decline of the country. As his popularity sank even deeper he became obsessed with how to exit the political scene with his back intact. Joseph Momoh, his tribesman, and head of the army was the obvious choice. Cleverly, Siaka Stevens had engineered the meteoric rise of Momoh in the army in place of other more deserving officers like Sam King.

    The police force was headed by yet another tribesman of Siaka Stevens – Bambay Kamara. In nearly all spheres of the country’s life professionalism became medieval. Political survival became the theme in vogue.

    The probability of the country extricating itself from the morass of tribal/ethnic drag is currently low until a reincarnation of Sir Milton surfaces from somewhere. Let us all pray in these waning days of the Koroma administration with all its flaws, which have been too many to erase ethnic/tribal undertones.

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